What to Do About Night Terrors

Preventative measures go a long way to putting an end to your child's night terrors.

According to the Night Terror Resource Center, 1.5 million children each year in the U.S. will suffer night terrors. This is no normal “bad dream” — when your toddler suffers from night terrors, they become suddenly and extremely frightened, as if they are experiencing a hallucination. And since night terrors occur during early deep sleep, it’s not as simple as waking your child to solve the problem. “Night terrors happen in the beginning of the night, when your little one is not dreaming yet,” says Susie Menkes, Ph.D., and certified infant and toddler sleep specialist at Healthy Little Sleepers. “If it’s after midnight and crying ensues, then it’s a plain and simple night waking.”

So what should you do if your child experiences night terrors? “Plain and simply, nothing,” Menkes says. “Even though it’s every parents inclination to pick up or wake up their little one, the best thing you can do is let them be.” Menkes explains that if you do pick your child up, they will stare right through you as if you are not even there. Besides being creepy as hell to the parent, this is not helpful to the child. When they do come out of the night terror in your arms, they will actually be more startled — because they won’t know why you’re there.

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One of the most disconcerting things about night terrors is a parent’s inability to comfort a child who appears in distress. “While your child’s cries and screams during the night terror can be startling to hear and watch, your little one actually does not know this episode is even happening,” Menkes says.

While night terrors seem serious, they aren’t as bad as you may think. Your child isn’t having stressful sleep because they’re traumatized — the causes of night terrors is usually much more benign.

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For one, night terrors often run in families. So if either parent had night terrors as a child, their offspring are more likely to have them too. Night terrors can also result from over-tiredness, stress, medications, and fever. “We are not always able to prevent these things, but we can try and keep them to a minimum,” Rebecca Michi, a certified children’s sleep consultant, says.

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Since being overtired is one of the biggest triggers for night terrors, Michi suggests focusing on the daily routine with bedtime. Keep it the same time each night and have a consistent wakeup time. “First thing’s first, get the most optimal sleep conditions in place, which includes a cool room and ‘early to bed’ schedule,” Menkes says.” A room that is too hot can lead to more frequent night terrors, and moving bedtime up 30 minutes can make big changes.

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Making sure children have a healthy waking environment is imperative, too. “Helping your child manage stressful situations can also help prevent night terrors, so talk with them about changes that are occurring in their lives, a sibling being born, moving house or starting preschool can all trigger night terrors,” Michi says.

You can even can predict when a night terror is going to most likely happen and prevent it, since they usually happen within the first 90 minutes of sleep. Menkes suggests preventing a night terror from happening by going into your child’s room and resetting their sleep cycle around 15 minutes before you expect the terror to begin. “Go into your child’s room and wake them very slightly,” Menkes says. “We want to bring them into a lighter sleep, since that prevents the terror from happening by putting your child in a different part of their sleep cycle — not in the deepest sleep, which is when a terror occurs.”